The extension of the Sun brand to cable news led, according to Quebecor insiders, to the most expensive specialty channel launch in Canadian history last April. Critics have panned the network as tasteless, if not un-Canadian. But Quebecor insists Sun News “regularly” beats CBC News Network and CTV News Channel in prime time.
It is also losing buckets of money. In the third quarter this year, operating profits in Quebecor’s broadcasting division plummeted 77 per cent, primarily due to the launch of Sun News. But Quebecor has made a five-year commitment to Sun News, giving the network time to prove itself.
Mr. Péladeau seems sold on its convergence potential. Of course, weakening the CBC would make it all so much easier, not just for Sun News, but for all of Quebecor’s broadcasting and Internet assets.
Mr. Péladeau insists the frequency with which Sun Media’s newspapers have filed access requests regarding the CBC in recent years is in keeping with their long tradition of holding public agencies and officials to account.
The debate about the CBC’s mission is as old as the public broadcaster, which turned 75 this year. But Mr. Péladeau argues it has never been as relevant as in the current multi-channel, multi-platform universe.
“I listen to the news on Radio-Canada everyday. As a citizen, I think it is undeniable that it has a news mission,” Mr. Péladeau offers. “But should Hockey Night in Canada be on the CBC? Should Jeopardy! be on the CBC?”
Mr. Péladeau seized on the Nov. 24 testimony before the House of Commons Ethics Committee, which oversees the Access to Information legislation, of CBC general counsel Maryse Bertrand to show that public network competes directly with private broadcasters, instead of complementing their activities.
Asked why the CBC refused to make the salaries of Mr. Mansbridge and other network stars public, Ms. Bertrand responded: “It’s the war for talent, basically. If precise salaries for our talent or even our programs are known, then others can try to poach them or somehow compete more efficiently against us than they would otherwise be able to.”
There is not much sympathy for Mr. Péladeau’s crusade in Quebec, where Radio-Canada remains a cherished cultural institution and, unlike its English-language arm, a ratings success story. Any diminution of its budget, the thinking in Quebec goes, would only enhance Quebecor’s domination of the province’s media landscape.
Last month, Enquête, a Radio-Canada version of The Fifth Estate, ran a highly critical probe of the “Quebecor Empire” that suggested Quebecor routinely advances its corporate interests in its newspapers and on its TV channels.
The program included a segment on the illegal hacking scandal facing Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp. in Britain, noting that politicians there criticize the Australian-born magnate and his media properties at their peril.
Mr. Péladeau dismisses the Enquête segment as “intellectually dishonest” and a form of “guilt by association” timed to coincide with CBC president and CEO Hubert Lacroix’s muscular counterattack against Quebecor. According to Mr. Lacroix, Quebecor has received more than $500-million in direct and indirect federal subsidies in the past three years, including favourable auction conditions for the wireless spectrum its Vidéotron subsidiary needed to enter the lucrative cellphone business.
The charge that politicians cower before Quebecor stems not only from the spectrum auction. It results from the Quebec National Assembly’s passage this fall of a law that forbids legal challenges to a contract granting Quebecor exclusive lease and naming rights on a new major league hockey arena planned for Quebec City.
Mr. Péladeau counters that the law was adopted at the insistence not of Quebecor but of Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, who is seeking to resuscitate the Nordiques franchise and thinks Quebecor would be the best owner. So, says Mr. Péladeau, does the NHL.
“We’ve made representations to the league. They like our business model,” he says, alluding to the convergence strategy Quebecor intends to employ by broadcasting Nordiques games on its new TVA Sports channel and Vidéotron’s smartphones. Indeed, it is the same model that inspired the $1.32-billion purchase this month of the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors, by BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc.
The prospect of a Quebecor-owned hockey team sends shivers up the spines of media watchdogs in Quebec, who fear it will only increase the company’s dominance of the province’s media market and turn its news outlets into Nordiques cheerleaders.
Mr. Péladeau sees it differently. Quebecor Media is 45-per-cent-owned by the Caisse de depôt et placement du Québec, which manages the assets of the Quebec Pension Plan. Hence, what’s good for Quebecor is good for Quebec.
Or, as he puts it: “Working for Quebecor is like working for all of Quebec.”